Where It Lands: Users and Relational Aesthetics

We did an overview of what activist, and socially-engaged / participatory art is and who it is made by in the last posts, so now lets look at some of the ideas artists and makers invoke behind this type of work: users and usership, relationality, intersubjectivity* and groups.

Poster by Lincoln Cushing, Illustration by Frank Ciesorka, Photo by Shaun Slifer at the Interference Archive

Users of the Art/Cultural Experience

Activists and artists make this work so it can be used by other people, and in fact if politicized works are not interacted with, or used, they fail to function.

So, one term I’d like to add is user, someone who is expected to utilize, co-create or interact meaningfully with an art piece or cultural production. Users exist in a changeable cross section of centrality to the production of these works. For example, someone who holds a banner or sign in a protest march; someone who wears a silkscreened image on a t-shirt, someone who sees the sign and joins the march; someone who participates in the theatre of the oppressed game; someone who is an actor in street theatre or creative guerrilla disruptions like flash mobs; someone who is audience to a teach-in from a poster; someone who wears a Free The Panther 12 pin. Users are critical for cultural productions to work. Whether or not they are the [singular or group] author of an idea or event, it is their participation via usage in the world that makes them co-producers of the whole experience.

Cultural productions have a social component, the people who use. Users are those who help move and convey the message of a political cultural form even as their bodies and subjective selves are implicated in this messaging. Without the social form of folks “using” the art, it would fail to land where, that is, with whom, it is intended to empower, educate, change, or critique.


Users Is a Political Designation

Cultural productions created in a vernacular forms [pins, posters, tshirts, banners] are meant to be used by numbers of people as a collectivity – which makes the piece political. These artefacts are made to be in common: they are to be used by a group and shared. The point of their creation is to effect education, political views, the affect, and sense of subjectivity [self] of many people. There are several philosophies that explore this idea of group usage and relationship to other people and groups, which we’ll look at now.



One major theorist in this arena is Nicolas Bourriaud, who coined the term relational aesthetics, which he defines as: “a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space.” (Bourriaud, 2002) Claire Bishop explains this as “art works which seek to establish intersubjective encounters in which meaning is elaborated collectively.” Making the work together creates a new mode of being, and of understanding the relationships within that group form of being, and that relational experience is the art. Bourriaud uses examples from the Art World, of group dinners at a gallery



If you, like I, are left wondering why collective creation is important to make something “count” as art; and are curious as to what about a producers’ experience making the art is important to them, there are existing critiques. Bishop further explains Bourriaud’s conception of relationality, stating that “DIY, microtopian ethos is what Bourriaud perceives to be the core political significance of relational aesthetics,” because of a shift in what is seen as social change – which means that this idea hinges on artists creating brief politicized instances of interactive, utopian space as an ends unto themselves – a fine art version of Hakim Bey’s “temporary autonomous zones.”

Bishop then criticizes this conception of a completed art work, saying that “provisional solutions in the here and now” fail to truly push a critique that expects lasting change to be possible through this form. If the only point is creating any kind of relationship among people [as art], she implies, how does that push forward social critique, change, or resistance more than say, simply experiencing a friendlier atmosphere in your apartment building.


Other Relations

While exploring what people can experience together as a response to a society which privileges alienation, individualism, particularism, and the marketing joys of customizing your unique digital experience to a fine-grained degree does contest some of the ways in which status quo culture fails communities, to stop at relations on their own is a band-aid / reform kind of arts solution. This allows artists to feel like they are contributing, individuals to feel momentarily less alienated, not does not require the In our next posts, we’ll look at some other ways in which users and groups interact which may have more revolutionary potential.


Suggested Readings:

Relational Aesthetics, Nicolas Bourriaud, 2002.

“Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” Claire Bishop, http://www.scribd.com/doc/14807302/Bishop-Antagonism-and-Relational-Aesthetics

Further Readings & Theorists:

“The Indignity of Speaking for Others: An Imaginary Interview,” Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power, and Culture. By Craig Owens.

Michelle De Certeau

Jean-Luc Nancy


* Intersubjectivity is a widely-used term that uses syllables for levity, don’t let it’s length stress you out. For ever so much more on this concept, we’ll look at more in our next post, you can read Jean-Luc Nancy and Giorgio Agamben—or just peruse our friend Wikipedia.

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